First, determine if you need to publish your book to advance your career (tenure or promotion). If so, an academic press, often a university press, may be the best choice because established protocols, such as peer review and board approval, will influence department committees. Choose a press that publishes in your discipline and one whose books have influenced your scholarship and teaching. The AUPresses Subject Area Grid is available as a free download here. If you have written a book geared toward a general-interest audience and career advancement is not a reason for its publication, both trade houses and university presses could be a good fit. Read reviews of similar books and take note of the publishers. Look at the websites of various presses and determine if your project fits with their editorial programs. Many university presses have a trade line, like Fordham’s Empire State Editions. Keep in mind that most trade houses work with literary agents and may not accept unsolicited proposals. This answer to this Ask UP question about agents offers more details.
—Fordham University Press, May 2021
Most university presses publish for both trade and academic markets. Many also specialize in regional trade publishing for their given geographic locations. The difference between what is considered to be trade and what is considered to be academic is not always easy to discern. The key is in whether the university press can reach the intended audience for a book if it is beyond the standard academic market. Many can. NYU Press publishes often for the trade audience, and our books are reviewed in mainstream media outlets like the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, the Huffington Post, the New York Review of Books, and also NPR, PBS, and C-SPAN Book TV.
Keep in mind that if you want to write a trade book, you will need to write in an accessible style, with a focus that will appeal to readers outside the academy. Trade books place more emphasis on narrative and “readability” than on extensive footnoting and references to scholarship. The marketability of a topic, including an author’s willingness and ability to promote their work on social media and elsewhere, is also very important in making sure that the book can be promoted to a wide audience.
One last factor to be aware of is that if this is your first book, you should check in with your academic department about whether you need to publish it with a university press in order to receive tenure. Some tenure and promotion committees may not “count” publication with trade or non-university presses, so your publishing with a trade house could impede your ability to receive tenure.